People are very angry at Tony Blair. This is not a new development and has been pretty much a permanent feature of UK politics since 2003.
Our former prime minister has enraged Brexit supporters by restating what everyone already knew to be his opinion, chiefly that leaving the EU is a bad idea and it should be prevented. Cue accusations that he is “elitist” and “undemocratic”.
Yet which former resident of Number 10, free of the shackles of office, has resisted the temptation to speak their mind about subjects on which they feel strongly? The Earl of Stockton, the politician formerly known as Harold Macmillan, had members of the Garrick positively spluttering over their G&Ts when, in 1985, he didn’t quite compare Mrs Thatcher’s privatisation programme to “selling the family silver”. Heath, Thatcher, Major and Brown all contributed to public debates of one sort or another once their parties and electorates had dispensed with their services.
So why does Blair’s intervention on Brexit elicit such strong views? Are we really suggesting that, had last year’s referendum secured a victory for the remain campaign, anti-EU ideologues such as Nigel Farage and Iain Duncan Smith would never again have suggested a rematch?
In defending his long-held views in support of EU membership and freedom of movement, Blair is only being true to his principles, and expressing them, infuriatingly, in a manner that no British politician can hope to match in terms of passion and eloquence. Nevertheless, he is making a crucial error. Two crucial errors, in fact.
For in suggesting another referendum to give Britain’s voters a chance to change their minds, Blair is simply reminding us that democracy is too often used, not to deliver the will of the people, but to serve the interests of politicians with an agenda. The two can sometimes overlap, but not as frequently as we would like.
Unhelpfully for those who seek to defend and preserve the other Union, the one between Scotland and the rest of the UK, Blair has taken a leaf straight out of the SNP’s playbook: start by promising to respect the outcome of the referendum and then, once you’ve lost, start agitating immediately for a replay.
It was universally accepted at the time that the EU referendum was a one-off, that the decision of the people would be respected and acted upon. There was no suggestion, before polling day on June 23 last year, of a do-over in the event of the “wrong” outcome. That’s because, in the arrogance of the Remain camp, there would be no need.
Yet now Blair has unwittingly confirmed one of the central themes of the triumphant Leave campaign: that the EU and its supporters are fundamentally undemocratic, that whenever they are presented with a democratic result with which they disagree, they simply demand the question be put again, and again, until the “correct” answer is given.
In calling for a referendum on the outcome of Theresa May’s Brexit negotiations, Blair is simply reminding the country that he and the pro-EU camp lost: when does the winning side in a referendum ever ask for a repeat of the vote? The tactic is the last resort of the loser, a fact about which he – and the only party that supports his stance, the Liberal Democrats – should perhaps keep quiet about.
His second error is to lament the error of voting for an outcome he thinks will be calamitous based, as he describes it, on “imperfect knowledge”. It is surprising that someone as experienced and battle-hardened as Blair has given such an ill-deserved gift to his detractors. For, with hindsight, it’s hard to think of a better way to describe the case for military intervention in Iraq in 2003 than one based on “imperfect knowledge”.
The difference, of course between the case for removing Saddam and the case for leaving the EU was that the former was based on intelligence that fell short of what MPs should have expected, intelligence with gaping holes that should have been filled before a shot was fired. The cases for and against leaving the EU were based on publicly available and transparent information that became the subject of claim and counter-claim during the campaign – exactly the way democracy is supposed to work, in fact.
One side won, and the losing side complained. That is also how democracy is supposed to work. Had Remain won the day, its claim during the campaign – that every pound sent to the EU by the British taxpayer generates ten in the opposite direction – would have been the subject of withering criticism, just as Vote Leave’s “£350 million a week” claim has been since last summer.
Blair built his political reputation – and Labour’s election victories – on his ability to “get it”, to understand working people’s priorities and their motivations. He should retrieve those unerring political antennae out of whatever cupboard he left them in 2007 and dust them down.